The U.S. population of persons 65 years or older numbered 39.6 million in 2009 and is expected to increase to 72.1 million by 2030. Coupled with falling birth rates and lengthening age expectancies, the U.S. population is rapidly aging.
For engineers and designers, this creates design challenges that didn’t previously exist with younger populations. Existing and developing products may need to be altered to cater to the older demographic.
Thanks to MIT’s Agelab, young designers may be better equipped to understand the needs of their aging clients. Under the direction of Joe Coughlin, Agelab has created AGNES (Age Gain Now Empathy System), a suit designed to approximate the motor, visual, flexibility, dexterity, and strength of a person in their mid-70s.
AGNES simulates a gerontological atmosphere in retail, public transportation, and workplace environments. Braces and bands mimic joint stiffness and muscular fatigue. Leg straps create slower leg movements, and helmet attachments give the wearer an age-induced curved spine. Yellow eyeglasses make it difficult to read small print, and earplugs simulate difficulty with sounds and tones.
MIT Research Fellow Rozanne Puleo told Fastcodesign.com:
“We’ve suited up students and taken them to the grocery store to purchase foods with low sugar, low sodium, and low fat—foods commonly purchased by older adults. They found that it was very challenging to locate these items on the shelf. That’s valuable information that we can take back to organizations.”
Part of the Engineering Systems Division, MIT AgeLab works to transform technologies into practical solutions that improve how products are designed and services are delivered. In addition to AGNES, the AgeLab has created AwareCar (a vehicle that monitors driver state); Miss Daisy (a driving simulator used for evaluating cognitive distraction and the effects of disease and medication); and Miss Rosie (a Volkswagen Beetle that evaluates a driver’s capacity for vehicle operation), among others.